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Pioneer Press Photo by Ben Garvin Austin Granger inspects an element on his new K’NEX ball machine at The Works Museum in Bloomington, Minn., on Thursday. The machine is 23 1/2-feet tall and 40-feet long, and contains over 100,000 pieces, a new world record. It has two lifts, three motors and eight paths, including a 20-foot free-fall and a 60-foot-long path that hangs from the ceiling.

K’NEX to the max: Minnesotan creates world’s largest structure from kid’s toy

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By Richard Chin / St. Paul Pioneer Press

ST. PAUL, Minn. — We last talked to Austin Granger in 2012 when the University of Minnesota undergraduate was becoming a YouTube sensation.

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He had filled his St. Paul bedroom with a massive 40,000-piece Rube Goldbergesque device built out of a kid’s construction toy called K’NEX. A video that Granger made of his creation, which sent plastic balls racing along 450 feet of plastic track, got mentions on the ABC News and Huffington Post websites. The result: 2 million YouTube views in about a two-week period.

A year and a half later, Granger, 23, is close to graduating with a computer science degree, but he hasn’t outgrown the toy he’s been tinkering with since he was about 5 years old.

The story about Granger in the Pioneer Press caught the attention of The Works, a Bloomington-based science and engineering museum for kids.

The museum commissioned the toybox architect to create a structure for the lobby of its building. The museum supplied him with hundreds of dollars of K’NEX parts funded by a donation from former board member Don Craighead, an entrepreneur and engineer. The museum also solicited donations of even more K’NEX pieces from museum patrons. And then it turned Granger loose, letting him toil for four months snapping together thousands and thousands of pieces of brightly colored plastic.

The result is the “World’s Largest K’NEX Ball Machine,” a towering kinetic sculpture 23½ feet tall that fills the open stairwell of the museum with plastic balls looping on tracks, spiraling through ramps, rattling down chutes, tripping over levers and riding up elevators.

Granger said the recently completed contraption used more than 100,000 K’NEX pieces — about a quarter ton of plastic, he reckons — eclipsing the previous largest documented K’NEX structures, which involved about 50,000 pieces.

“The idea was just to build until I ran out of parts,” Granger said.

Even though his museum piece is the largest K’NEX machine yet, Granger said it’s simpler than some of the K’NEX ball machines he’s built in his bedroom at his family’s St. Anthony Park home. Those works have involved a computer-controlled overhead crane and a 5½-foot-wide ring of LEDs synchronized to music.

But he said The Works piece is a lot more robust and reliable because it’s designed to stay in the museum for a few years and operate without mishap for up to seven hours a day while the museum is open.

“We don’t want balls falling off and hitting people,” he said. “So far it has been surprisingly low maintenance.”

Museum officials said they got the wow showpiece they were looking for.

“It’s a piece of art. It’s an engineering piece,” said Jill Measells, museum chief executive officer. “The visitors are just mesmerized by it.”

Granger said advertising revenue from YouTube videos of his K’NEX creations have netted him a check in the four figures.

“Enough to help me with college tuition,” he said.

He said he got a $2,300 commission for The Works commission, but he estimates he spent about 250 hours working on it. That amounts to an hourly rate of about $9, if you don’t count the 100 hours of volunteer help he got from a friend, Sam Ihlenfeldt, a Carleton College student and fellow K’NEX builder.

So Granger doesn’t expect to make a living out of being a K’NEX master builder.

“Obviously, if I could figure out how to do that, that would be fantastic,” he said.

But Granger said he doesn’t connect K’NEX pieces for Internet fame or fortune. He’s just interested in continuing to push the K’NEX construction envelope.

“Every time I build one of these machines, I learn more about K’NEX as a material for building and engineering,” he said. “I just get a lot of satisfaction from finding problems and solving them myself.”

“If YouTube didn’t exist, I would still build with K’NEX,” he said.

The Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum News Service.

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